The Parable of the Three Burglars

Some years ago, a monk, dedicated to following the Way of the Earth, moved to a treeless and dilapidated area in a rough industrial city. It was a painful manner in which to live, but she shared the Way with children and adults and that brought her joy. She helped grow gardens, taught meditation, karate, and how to cook healthy food, set up a farmers market, and planted street trees. On weekends she would sometimes hire a van and bring children out into the woods—a first for many of them.

But many in the community assumed she was better off than they, and every few years her modest studio apartment was visited by a burglar. One late night, as she was preparing for a big tree planting, a man broke into her apartment. Both were startled but the monk recovered first.

“Welcome,” the monk said. “I just brewed some tea. Sit down and I will fix you a cup.”

The burglar, surprised by this small kindness in a place none should be expected, did so.

At first the man sat quietly, eyeing the monk for tricks. But after a few sips, he visibly relaxed and they chatted about his life, about how difficult it is to live here, and the monk invited him to garden with her, to join her meditation sessions. The man said, “No, that’s not for me.” And the monk then asked, “How can I help you?”

This offer of help—by one he was trying to hurt—confused the burglar. He stood up, suddenly very uncomfortable, and left. A few months later the burglar joined a meditation the monk led. And over time they became close friends. And the burglar, too, followed the Way of the Earth, helping to heal his community and the planet over the course of his years.

A few years later, a similar story unfolded. The monk was up late and surprised an entering burglar. The monk offered him some tea. The burglar, this time, said, “Are you kidding, I’m here to take your shit.”

And the monk responded, saying “you’re welcome to anything you like. I will sit here drinking my tea and will pour you a cup in case you change your mind.”

Once the monk had sit down at the table, with a second cup for the burglar, the burglar ran around the apartment looking for anything worth taking. But the monk had little. An old laptop, an even older cellphone. No TV, nothing worth anything on the street. Sensing his growing frustration, the monk said, “my wallet is on the nightstand near the bed, you are welcome to it.”

The burglar took her wallet, laptop, and phone, and left.

Years passed. The monk got older but her dedication to her community or to Gaia never wavered. And the city she lived in was now home to many pockets of beauty and joy. But it still struggled. A third time a burglar breaks into the monk’s home. He seems even more frenetic, more desperate than the others. But, all the same, the monk calmly invites him to tea. The burglar pushes her down onto her chair and tells her to shut up. And he proceeds to take everything he can: the monk’s laptop, wallet, and cellphone (newer than before but still not so valuable). He then opens drawers, dumps out books, flips over the mattress, he even knocks over potted plants—filling his bag with even the least valuable things: a 20-year old clock radio, an old flashlight, a jar of pennies, a pan and some kitchen utensils. He also grabs a kitchen knife. And when he finds nothing else, he pulls that knife on the monk.

“You gotta have more than this,” growls the burglar, coming closer to the monk. The monk, at speeds that defy description, disarms the burglar, and strikes him in the neck and kills him.

The monk, in her remaining days, was not robbed again.

Commentary

There is a Zen parable of a monk and a burglar, one in which the monk comes home to discover a burglar and as the burglar searched in vain for anything to steal, the monk gives him the clothes off his back (and at the end of the story wishes he could give the poor man the moon). I came across a new commentary on that story a few weeks back, making the beautiful point that the monk “merely responded to nothing other than what was happening” (a similar point made in The Cow in the Parking Lot: A Zen Approach to Overcoming Anger). He didn’t assign value to his stuff. To his life. To the worth or even the motivations of the burglar. He simply saw a man in his home. Someone in need, and so offered him the little that he had.

That certainly was the inspiration for the monk’s nonattachment in my own story. The monk saw not a burglar, nor a threat, but a guest and invited him for tea. And with the first, who accepted his invitation, she even explored how she could help his guest. With the second, she offered him more of her stuff, like the Zen monk, when that is what the burglar seemed to want.

But with the third, well, that was different.

In the moment of time we are in, compassion and charity are essential, but limits are as well. Should the monk have yielded her life, even when she had been trained in the martial arts? Or are there limits to nonviolence? And while she could have perhaps disabled her attacker instead of killing him, it was the burglar who decided to attack her, to threaten her. That might have been because he was addicted to something and thus acting irrationally or self-destructively. Or he might have simply thought he was bigger and stronger than the monk—immune to any danger she could pose. But she did not consider any of that. She simply responded, instinctually, and with complete finality—as the martial arts teaches.

When a Monk is Not a Monk

But this story is not about a monk at all. Some of you might have gathered already that the monk is not a monk, but is Gaia. The burglars are increasing levels of degradation of ‘civilized’ man. Of what the gorilla, Ismael, would have called Takers. The first came with the intention to take but stayed in reciprocity with Gaia when reminded of the benefit of this. And all was fine. The second came, demanded much, and Gaia gave it. Willingly—even at a cost to Gi’s well-being. But when the third came, whether in a bloodlust or high on something (drugs, sugar, oil, power) and demanding everything, Gaia crushed him, without hesitation, without mercy.

Gaia is poised to do the same now with our species.

Gaia has given us a chance—actually many chances. We have understood about climate change since the 1800s. We have known we are bumping against the limits of growth since the 1970s at least. Yet we steal on. We’ve stolen nearly everything from Gaia’s house. And now, we’re greedily demanding more. Ripping up her floorboards, toppling her plants in search of the least valuable bits of metal or material. We were offered friendship, we were offered charity, we were offered mercy. And now we will be met with none of these. I fear we will not get another chance. Just as with the monk, it is not personal. It was the burglar’s choice. The monk simply reacted. And Gaia, if we do not choose wisely, will meet us with the same seemingly brutal response that the monk met the third burglar. Though if we do choose wisely, Gaia may still meet us with open arms, perhaps even with love.

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2 Responses

  1. wornsmooth

    Great metaphorical story Erik.
    As societies have discovered repeatedly, Gaia can’t be fooled and has limits of tolerance.

  2. Erik Assadourian

    In our recent discussion of Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer’s question ‘can the land love you back?’ sparked a similar question about whether Gaia can love us back (which ended up inspiring the final line of this essay). How does Gaia show love? By being fruitful, by providing for us? By simply not shifting to a different state–one we’re not adapted to?

    But going a bit deeper, underlying love is reciprocity. And reciprocity is what will keep Gaia loving–or accepting–us. However, I fear with our lack of reciprocity, and worse, with our increasingly disrespectful treatment of Gi, our hoarding, our destructive and violent outbursts, Gaia is soon going to kick us out of this metaphorical relationship. And unfortunately, we’ll have no place else to go.

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